I recently heard a radio advertisement for new office furniture. It made a claim that by simply putting new furniture in an office, a company could reduce injuries (low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.) at a rather significant rate. This got me to thinking about many commercials and ads I have seen and heard regarding the ergonomic qualities of products and whether designating a product as “ergonomic” could ever trigger any FTC concerns. The particular radio ad referred to above did not mention ergonomics, but one could assume that this particular area of study is being implied. Other advertisements do specifically highlight the ergonomic qualities of their products. For example, there are “ergonomic baby carriers,” “ergonomic keyboards,” and of course, “ergonomic chairs.” But what exactly is required of a company describing their product as ergonomic? The FTC requires at least some evidence to substantiate a claim, but the study of ergonomics itself, might not truly allow for any one product to be truly “ergonomic.”
The International Ergonomics Association defines ergonomics as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theoretical principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well being and overall system.” Basically, it is the interaction between a human, a job, and the tools being used. Ergonomics is concerned with optimizing a person’s ability to work efficiently and with a decreased risk of injury. This might actually mean that the ideal ergonomic solution could be to avoid the use of a tool completely in order to minimize the work. The examples above can provide some guidance. First, from an ergonomic perspective, it might not be efficient to carry a baby at all. Pushing and pulling is typically more efficient than carrying, and thus a stroller may be the best option when it comes to transporting babies. Additionally, with the evolution of talk to text technology, the most ergonomic solution for a typist or office worker might be a microphone and good quality computer software rather than a new keyboard, ultimately rendering even the best keyboard “not ergonomic.”
Because the study of ergonomics is not highly regulated, or understood for that matter, it may be difficult for any regulatory authority to challenge any evidence that might be used to substantiate a claim for an ergonomic product. However, the term itself might be misleading because it could convince a person to spend significant amounts of money on a product that will ultimately do no good, or potentially cause more damage (from an injury or efficiency perspective). The FTC ought to consider requiring some type of disclaimer or clarification for vendors who choose to advertise their product as ergonomic.